The Arabian Peninsula has yielded few contemporary images as vivid as the 1991 Gulf war. The clean, virtual-reality fireworks display of 1991 has been revised only marginally by reports on Gulf war syndrome and accounts of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s military commendations for burying surrendering Iraqi soldiers alive with a bulldozer.
Since 1991, coverage of events within the Arabian Peninsula has all but disappeared from the evening news. Countries whose “stability” is deemed so essential to Western security are described only in terms of “our” weapons and oil rigs. Most English-language news agencies honor the tight censorship imposed by Western allies in the Gulf, and relegate Yemen, with half of the Peninsula’s native population, to travel exotica. The minimal coverage of last year’s bombing of American facilities at the Khobar Towers Complex in Saudi Arabia was masked by vague references to an Iranian connection, also blamed for Bahrain’s civil unrest. Yemen’s 1994 civil war was a blip on CNN. Kuwaiti and Yemeni parliamentary elections merited feature stories, not hard news coverage of parties, personalities or issues. Conflicting border claims in the subcontinent are a well-kept secret.
Saudi Arabia, the Peninsula’s most powerful state and the linchpin of US policy, is also the most inscrutable. Foreign researchers and reporters are all but barred from the country while American soldiers and oil company staff live inside fenced compounds. Its hyper-secrecy has, in the past, made Saudi Arabia a valuable partner in US covert operations from the contra war in Nicaragua to the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. During the oil bonanza of the 1970s and 1980s, and especially after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, massive Saudi foreign assistance fostered a particular brand of anti-communist, anti-Iranian Islamism. Millions of dollars flowed to shari‘a colleges and neo-Islamist seminaries throughout the Islamic world. In neighboring North Yemen, Saudis subsidized studies in “Islamic sciences,” sponsored chairs and symposia and recruited thousands of Islamist Sudanese, Egyptian and Palestinian teachers to compensate for the shortage of qualified Yemenis.
Yemen’s leading self-declared Muslim militant ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and his disciples not only preached but volunteered and recruited for the anti-communist crusade in Afghanistan. In the neo-Islamist institutes of Pakistan, they met with exiles, migrants, students and mercenaries from Algeria to Afghanistan and with financiers such as the infamous Osama bin Laden, a Saudi of South Yemeni origin. These institutes, teaching Qur’an memorization and guerrilla warfare in the name of salafi (puritan) Islam, won notoriety for training the counter-revolutionary Taliban. The Afghan network recruited migrants and exiles to another jihad against the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) that began as a contra movement. This shadowy Islamic Front assisted Sanaa’s military campaign against homegrown progressives in southern North Yemen in the early 1980s and ended with the rout of the remnants of the South Yemeni army in 1994, when al-Zindani condemned hundreds of thousands of YSP members as “apostates.”
The billions of riyals spent on conventional parochial education, legal training and private religious charities also helped produce a mainstream conservative party in Yemen, the Islah or Reform Grouping, where al-Zindani joined with secular, anti-communist tribal, merchant and security forces to defeat the Socialists at the polls. Proud to be “the first Islamist party to come to power through the ballot box,” Islah is a neo-conservative but non-traditional, republican party that, while championing “family values,” also launched a female voter registration drive in advance of the 1993 elections even as the leaders of its women’s section insisted women have the right to separate facilities. Its charitable affiliate, the Islah Social Welfare Society, the largest of several new religious and secular relief and service providers, is a beneficiary of its affiliated charities in the Gulf. Having encouraged this movement for over a decade, Riyadh and Sanaa are now attempting to limit the widening appeal of its reformist demands.
In pursuit of “stability” in the Arabian Peninsula — of regimes, resources and access to military facilities — US policymakers find themselves in a dilemma. To support oil-exporting, weapons-importing friends, and with a blind eye to their human rights practices, Central Command is poised to “contain” not just Iraq and Iran but also the Islamist forces unleashed against the former Cold War foes. While Riyadh, Washington and a few Gulf billionaires have funded politically expedient religious indoctrination and/or methods of guerrilla warfare, they and other Middle Eastern governments also have cultivated more passive forms of religiosity to counter progressive ideologies. In doing so, governments inadvertently have nursed a nascent neo-Islamist movement whose most alienated youth emulate the successful Afghan crusade but whose mainstream provides an increasingly crucial social safety net.
Not long ago Israel encouraged the development of religious movements, including Hamas, in the Occupied Territories, hoping they would divert popular loyalties from nationalist networks then affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel is not alone in regretting the assumption that religion would opiate the masses. To neutralize the once-powerful left-leaning domestic opposition, and later to offset the disastrous social effects of economic restructuring, regimes in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria and Jordan also fostered Muslim youth and community groups even as they attempted to censor Friday sermons. The Gulf potentates — fearful even of the revolutionary republicanism of Yemen or Iran, where women participate as voters, candidates and parliamentarians — have tried to limit civic behavior (in the case of Saudi Arabia, all public life) to sanctioned “Islamic” activities. Throughout the region, the suppression of alternative forms of legitimate expression, has left no legal outlets other than the increasingly politicized religious groups.
The Gulf war constituted a new round in inter-Arab royalist-republican competition in and around the Arabian Peninsula. With Iraq under occupation, this ongoing conflict’s main flashpoint is now the complex, multi-layered Yemeni-Saudi relationship. Many Saudi maps show no southern border, and indeed a permeable, rugged, semi-arid frontier crossed by migrants, smugglers, currencies, ideologies and renegades lies beyond the recently renegotiated line stretching from the Red Sea to above the Razih mountains. Yemenis have seen a Saudi hand — though it is unclear whether it is the hand of the state or private individuals — in every event in recent Yemeni history. The prospect of a populous, unified, republican Yemen has long been anathema to Saudi Arabia. Saudi dissidents applaud Yemen’s republican model and parliamentary elections (including female participation) as a positive example for Saudi Arabia while Riyadh continues to press territorial claims in the now oil-producing eastern and southern regions of Ma’rib, Shabwa and Hadhramawt.
If, from the Potomac, the Peninsula looks like America’s Arabia, in the bright sun of this subcontinent the giant casts a faint shadow. Much has happened before and since 1991 that warns against assuming that political arrangements are either traditional or permanent. Boundaries and fundamental questions of statehood and citizenship are unresolved. Oil economies and especially the Yemeni labor reserve are in retrenchment, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regimes are in a paradoxical relationship with the West — open to its military, closed to its scrutiny. These contradictions intersect with underlying social, class, political and generational forces in the cities, deserts and farm communities of Arabia in complex, multifaceted ways. In this issue of Middle East Report, we offer some insights into some of these dynamics.